Sunday, April 6, 2014

Called to serve

It’s the most natural instinct in the world.  It’s there in a parent, it’s there in a carer, it’s there in anyone who is concerned for the needs of someone else.

It’s the instinct that wants to organise things for other people.   I can see exactly what’s wrong with you.  This is what you need to do to put things right.  An I will do my best to organise things so that it works out that way.

It’s an instinct we all have.

And it’s an instinct we all have to unlearn.

You can’t actually organise other people.

It was a lesson the mother of the sons of Zebedee had to learn.  As followers of Jesus they were likely to get caught up in the horror of all that was to happen in Jerusalem and she wanted to make sure they would be all right.  So she took things into her own hands and had a quiet word with Jesus to see to it that they would sit one at your right hand and one at your left in your kingdom.

Jesus confronted her with the reality none of us can escape.  Neither she, nor we, can organise things to make sure those we love will be ‘all right’.

That story of the mother and the two sons is quickly followed by the story of the two men who are blind.   What’s different about their story is that they have come to the point at which they realise they are in need of help.  They turn for help to Jesus themselves.

Lord, have mercy on us.

And Jesus responds to them and asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Lord, let our eyes be opened,”  they respond.

And there is that most wonderful of verses …

Moved with compassion Jesus touched their eyes.  Immediately they regained their sight and followed him.

So what do you want of Jesus?

Picture the immensity of God’s love in Jesus and in that prayer that simply says, Lord have mercy, picture the Jesus who is moved with compassion reaching out to touch you at the point at which you need his touch most.  And sense that wholeness, that healing that peace, that does not necessarily equate with cure, but touches you deep down.

Other things are at play in these two stories.   And they get to the heart of other things we instinctively feel.

We began our reading of Matthew’s gospel at the start of the New Year as we joined our friends at St Luke’s.  One of the things to notice about Matthew’s gospel is the careful way it is structured to get across the message at its heart.

Modern western thinking often starts at the beginning, works through an argument and comes to a conclusion at the end.  Middle Eastern writing often has a different structure.  There is a balance between the beginning and the end and it’s in the middle that the main point of a story comes across.

Take this section of Matthew’s Gospel.

There is a balance between the story of the two sons of Zebedee and the two blind men.

It’s a balance of opposites.

Seeing the dangers ahead the mother wants to organise things for her two sons to ensure they will have the most important places in the kingdom – one at the right and one at the left of Jesus.  She wants to make sure her two sons will get to the top and be in positions of power.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast with the two men who are  blind.  They are sitting by the roadside.  They are left out.  They are on the fringes of things.  The way society at the time is set up they have no chance of making it to the top.

They are the ones who are restored and who move from the side of the road to following Jesus on the road he is going to take.

But something happens between these two stories.

When the ten heard it, they were angry with the two brothers. 25But Jesus called them to him and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 26It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; 28just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Jesus offers two things.

First, he offers a different way of thinking of ourselves that turns the way we look at things upside down.

Jesus tackles another basic human instinct and turns it on its head.

There’s an incredible pressure put on us to get to the top.

It’s one thing in sport and for fun to be rooting for the England women’s team and Karen’s niece Anya Shrubsole who got man of the match in the semi-final victory over S. Africa  in the Cricket world cup, and to tut at the defeat of the England men’s team by the Netherlands.    It’s fun to be on tenterhooks – will the Robins manage to stay up, will Leicester City make it back to the Premiership, will Leicester Tigers make it to the premiership final for the tenth year in a row?

But it seeps into our very psyche.

Going through school, I remember the mantra that was pushed at me – do your best.

Something concerns me in the proposed when the proposed new grading system will use as a base line exam results from Singapore, China and South Korea – getting to the top is all that counts.

The consequence of the measures of league tables in schools is that it has built into the psyche of people that competitive spirit at the heart of things – you must get to the top.

Jesus has just told a story that makes you think so differently.

We have an instinct for fairness that quite naturally puts people into a hierarchy.

But Jesus opens up for us a way of seeing things from God’s perspective that’s quite different.

It goes against the grain.

It is not fair.

The labourer who is taken on in the last hour receives the same as the labourer who is taken on in the first hour of the day.

It’s not fair.  But this is the wildly extravagant love that God.  It really is a prodigal love.

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave.

The first shall be last.

And the last first.

It is as if each one of us matters.  Not as we compare ourselves with others.  But we each matter.

Stuff goes on to undermine that confidence we can have in ourselves.

We each of us count in God’s eyes, in God’s hands.

That’s to hold on to.

It’s interesting that the Guiding movement have introduced a badge through the movement all about self-esteem.

When the school you go to is ranked over against other schools, the teachers you learn from are given scores, when you are graded over against expectations – no wonder esteem is lost.

The whole system is gearing you into getting to the top.  Always striving, striving, striving.

And God has the audacity to say the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

How can we be sure of this.

This is where we come to the second significant thing in these verses that are so key.

The key lies in Jesus.

It is in Jesus that the immensity of God’s compassion and love can be seen.

For Jesus himself came not be served but to serve … more than that, he came to give his life a ransom for many.

His concern is for many – God so loved the world that he gave his only son – and that gift of God’s life in Jesus is what brings freedom, freedom from all those pressures that come from that other way of life.

Today is Passion Sunday, the start of the week before Holy Week.   We mark it this evening with a special service of words and Music looking to the cross.

The ultimate moment at which that freedom comes, when the world is turned on its head comes on the cross.

Father, forgive them for they know not what they do  is the cry Jesus shares.

One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

One  in the eye for the mother of Zebedee’s sons!

That a criminal should receive such a promise.

At the last.

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, an immensity to God’s love that we cannot begin to appreciate.

Good that the Prodigal God course has got under way – that story goes to the heart of the Good news of our faith.

“Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children.  God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience.”

Timothy Keller, The Prodigal God – Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Riverhead Books, 2008) xviii

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